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Into the Void

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Everything changed in F1 with Schumacher gone, as the sport got younger, less wealthy and yet again wrestled with its technical regulations. But the racing was fierce and exciting, a refreshing change, with racecraft and strategy paramount. From Lewis Hamilton to Brawn GP to the startling rise of Red Bull Racing and Sebastian Vettel, Formula One in the second decade of the 21st century is very much alive and well. Just not as we’ve known it.

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Copyright © 1997, 2014 Glenn B. Manishin.

Everything emerged different for Formula One in 2007. Michael Schumacher was gone, replaced by Kimi Räikkönen. The Scuderia no longer enjoyed the technical dominance that had produced five straight World Championships. After British American Tobacco ceased its financial support, Honda F1 ran with an “Earth” livery on its RA107 car, the first time since 1968, when sponsorship became widespread, that an F1 team competed sponsor-free for an entire season. There was a return to a single tire source (Bridgestone), dogged by complaints of favoritism to Ferrari. The FIA’s sporting regulations were changed to limit teams to 14 sets of dry tires per car over the race weekend — four sets for Friday only, with 10 for the rest of the weekend — and required drivers to use each of two different tire compounds in every race. Alonso moved from Renault to McLaren and Juan Pablo Montoya deserted F1 for, amazingly at the time, NASCAR stock car racing in theChina 07 United States. And it was only by grace of the almighty that F1 itself remained intact, as the major teams (through the Grand Prix Manufacturers Association) had — as they have periodically under the Concorde Agreement — threatened to boycott Formula One from 2008 onwards and instead stage their own rival GP racing series.

All seasons are intriguing but few more than this. Lewis Hamilton, who’s career had been underwritten in karting and GP2 by McLaren since the age of 13, was taken on as a full-time F1 driver starting in ’07. Lewis did not disappoint. Hamilton made an instant impression in his debut season, overtaking teammate Alonso around the outside of the first corner at the first GP of the season in Australia. He finished an amazingly mature 3rd in that initial outing and then proceeded to smash the 40-year-old rookie record of two consecutive podiums at the start of a season. Lewis scored a spectacular nine podiums in his first nine races, of which he won two. Hamilton’s rookie season was the best ever by a first-year driver in Formula One; it was not until errors in the year’s last two races — including an embarrassing spin into the gravel entering pit lane, after starting from pole, in Shanghai — cost him the title that he finally looked human after all. In total, he won four races and finished 2007 in second, just one point behind Räikkönen of Ferrari. The result, at least in part, was an irritated Fernando Alonso, whose McLaren tenure would be limited to a single year after paranoia and jealousy forced a wedge between team and titular No. 1 driver.

QuoteBy China the relationship between Hamilton and Alonso had completely broken down, Alonso displaying petulance and saying unfortunate things. It didn’t help that he was twice World Champion and Hamilton in his first season but, at pressure moments, outdriving him. Nobody had ever arrived new to Grand Prix motor racing and handled the F1 circus or the Klieg lights of its new media age with such maturity.Quote

Grand Prix Showdown — Christopher Hilton

Not that Kimi was anything to sneeze at. Räikkönen earned a salary of more than £20 million from Ferrari in 2007 and was, apart from an occasional tendency to party too hard, too cool for words. The Finn recorded a flag to flag victory in the opening Grand Prix at Melbourne’s Albert Park, becoming just the 4th F1 driver to win in his debut for Maranello. The title race was close, and dramatic, with Alonso and Hamilton recovering with a 1-2 finish for McLaren at Sepang, then Alonso winning the European GP at the Nürburgring, Hamilton in Hungary, Massa in Turkey, Alonso at Monza and Räikkönen at Spa. The new openness was breathtaking. Räikkönen headed to Japan in 3rd place. The Japanese GP moved to Fuji Speedway; the event marked by treacherous weather and starting under Safety Car conditions. Lewis Hamilton survived a brush Bahrain 07with Robert Kubica to win from Heikki Kovalainen and Räikkönen. At the last three corners Kubica and Massa ran side by side in a battle for 6th, while Alonso aquaplaned and crashed on lap 41 of 67. In China, Lewis Hamilton captured his 6th pole of the season and led up to lap 28, only to be overtaken by Räikkönen before pushing too hard, skidding off entering pitlane.

The finale marked the first time since Prost, Piquet and Mansell at the Australian Grand Prix of 1986 that three drivers had a chance of becoming World Champion as of the last race, and the first time since the inaugural 1950 F1 season that the man placed 3rd in the drivers’ standings at the final race (then being Giuseppe Farina) actually won the championship. Lewis arrived at Autódromo José Carlos Pace in Brazil’s Interlagos as the favorite with 107 points, followed by Alonso with 103 points and Räikkönen with 100; if Hamilton finished 1st or 2nd he had the championship. Lewis started on the front row but dropped to the back of the field after a gearbox problem. He recovered to 7th, yet Kimi Räikkönen won the race and the drivers’ title (over McLaren’s protest). The final standings were Kimi with 110 points followed by Hamilton and Alonso, each with 109. After seven years in Formula One, the Ice Man had commeth.

And then all hell broke loose in 2008. The season started on a low with Hamilton, the sport’s first mixed-race driver, becoming the subject of ugly racist taunting during pre-season testing in Barcelona. (The FIA’s  regulations had been amended to limit each constructor to 30,000 km of testing per year, the majority done during multi-team tests, normally three days in duration, at racetracks around Europe, where any team could elect to pay a portion of the costs and to bring its cars.) The Formula One circus was subsequently rocked by video footage showing FIA president Max Mosley in a Nazi-themed S&M orgy with five prostitutes. But thereafter F1 2008 truly became a season to remember. Felipe Massa had spun at the start at Melbourne and later clashed with David Coulthard. In Sepang he lost the lead to teammate Kimi Räikkönen, then spun off trying to catch him. Not many expected Massa to end up

QuoteThey crowded into the Parco di Monza in their customary thousands, packing the grandstands to the rafters in keen anticipation of a Ferrari-versus-McLaren showdown, only to find that the World Championship contest between Lewis Hamilton and Felipe Massa had been reduced to a secondary issue. Instead, the Tifosi sat sodden and bewitched throughout the rainy 2008 Italian GP as an engaging young kid with a ready smile and a wacky sense of humor that embraced Monty Python drove into the F1 record books before their very eyes. ‘It was unbelievable seeing everybody going crazy all the way around the circuit’ said Sebastian Vettel, whose wide-eyed innocence wooed the crowd into paroxysms of delight.Quote

Autocourse 60 Years of World Championship Grand Prix Motor Racing — Alan Henry

leading Ferrari’s title charge. Räikkönen won, while both McLaren drivers — Heikki Kovalainen replacing Alonso — picked up penalties in practice. Räikkönen also won in Spain but from this point on his form started to dip. The Istanbul round was F1′s first experience with what would become a familiar phenomenon: Massa out-paced Räikkönen in qualifying, and though the Finn showed excellent quickness in the race the chance for victory had escaped him. Massa won his third Turkish Grand Prix in a row, Hamilton finishing second. Exciting new drivers like Sebastien Vettel, Kubica and Kovalainen were a definite plus. German Vettel became F1′s youngest-ever winner by taking the Silverstone 08Italian Grand Prix at age 21. What is more, he did so in a Toro Rosso (successor to perpetual backmarker Mindari) having qualified in pole position as well. Kubica was many pundits’ driver of the season and thick in the title mix until the midway point, while Kovalainen scored his first victory at the Hungaroring.

A wet Monaco Grand Prix provided high drama. Hamilton clipped the wall but survived with only a puncture. An early pit stop positioned Lewis perfectly to capitalize on changing conditions later in the race, and he won from Massa. Adrian Sutil ran strongly in the points for Force India — until an out-of-control Räikkönen rammed him out of the race. Räikkönen was then the driver rammed out of the race in Montreal, while stopped by a red control light at the pitlane exit, by title rival Brazil 08Hamilton. Kimi called the shunt simply “stupid.” That opened the door for Kubica to go for the win, which he delivered: his maiden victory, at the circuit where he survived a huge crash in 2007. And despite finishing a disappointing 13th at Magny Cours — the last French Grand Prix after 58 years in F1 — Hamilton convincingly silenced the doubters with a sensational win at Silverstone in the driving rain. Lewis proved himself a driver in attitude from the 1950s and 60s; I will take risks, big risks, whenever I feel I need to.

McLaren was expected to run away with the race at Hungary too, and when Hamilton took pole position it looked like business as usual. But Massa burst through from the second row, passed Hamilton and stormed away, only to suffer an uncharacteristic and cruel engine failure. Which in turn set the stage for a riveting conclusion between two drivers from utterly different backgrounds driving two utterly different cars. At the Belgian GP at Spa-Francorchamps, a compelling race ended in controversy with Hamilton crossing the line first, but long after the podium celebrations he was judged to have gained an unfair advantage by cutting a chicane when he steered the McLaren across a run-off area to avoid hitting Räikkönen and assessed a 25-second penalty, thereby dropping Lewis to third and handing Massa the win. The always loquacious Niki Lauda called this “the most perverted judgment in the history of F1.” Hamilton’s drivers’ championship lead was cut to two points. By the tine everyone arrived in China, it was almost preposterously exciting, with just 12 points separating the three leading drivers. The end was epic. Last race, last lap, last corner. Hamilton’s fifth-place finish in the wet at Interlagos, in which he passed Timo Glock (struggling on dry tires in the increasing rain) at the final corner,

QuoteThe Ferrari pit wall crew miscounted it and, after a riot of jubilation, subsided into a wake of stunned faces. . . .  On the slowing down lap Hamilton lifted his visor and dabbed his eyes, saying on the radio ‘I am speechless.’ In parc férme, Massa lifted his own visor and put a gloved hand over his eyes. Then he clambered out, facing the crowd, tapped his heart three of four times, bowed and raised both hands with index fingers pointed up to the sky. At least I won the race; at least I did all I could do.Quote

Grand Prix Showdown — Christopher Hilton

after Felipe Massa had already crossed the start-finish line in 1st, was impossibly dramatic and turned the 23-year-old into a global sporting icon. It also gave birth to a whole new generation of petrolheads in Britain and showed sportsmanship at its best with Ferrari’s poignantly unfortunate Massa truly dignified in defeat, as Felipe would go away through the teeming, chaotic streets of São Paulo to the team hotel having had his title snatched from his grip at the last possible moment. When Massa had crossed the finish line the Ferrari pit and the crowd erupted in celebration. But the cheers stopped as Vettel and Hamilton headed for the flag with Glock in their mirrors: Vettel fourth, Hamilton fifth and Formula One World Champion by a single point.

Another intriguing year in Formula One; what are the chances? The 2009 F1 season remarkably saw teams back from the dead, a World Champion from left field, back-to-front starting grids — produced by a combination of the three-session “knock out” qualifying format introduced for 2006, new grid penalties assessed for replacing car components required to last a specified number of races (three races for engines), and a slash in the testing allowance to just 15,000 km, with in-season testing banned, turning the three hours of practice on Grand Prix Fridays into the only real opportunity to track test in-season developments — the disappearance of Max Mosley, plus at least two hand-wringing scandals (after “Diffusergate” came ”Liegate”) and one almost career-ending accident. It started when the supremely clever Ross Brawn, technical director for Ferrari and Benetton in the Schumacher years, bought what was left of Honda after the Japanese constructor withdrew from F1, taking its engines with them. Brawn promptly renamed the team after himself, fitted Mercedes power to the back of the chassis and, thanks to a close reading of the season’s new technical regulations, devised a rear “double diffuser” that worked light years better than anyone else’s. The consequence was the customary rules protests from the the traditional power teams, rejected by the FIA; but more importantly former Honda driver Jenson Button, without a ride in pre-season, handily winning six GPs and seeing himself transformed Melbourne 09at last from a likeable has-been skirt-chaser into a driver whose substantial talents had finally been rewarded, like Nigel Mansell 17 years before, with a dominant car. Brawn became the first new team ever to win their maiden two races and go on to take both the drivers’ and constructors’ titles. By season end Button’s succession to Lewis Hamilton’s throne meant that for the first time ever two Englishmen — as opposed to two Britons — had captured back-to-back World Championships.

Brawn GP left the F1 fraternity speechless as they flew away to Melbourne for the opening ’09 Grand Prix and came away with a stunning 1-2 finish, Button from Barrichello. Jenson called it “a fairy tale ending really to the first race of our career together.” It was Rubens’ first podium since the 2008 British Grand Prix and his highest finish since the now-infamous 2005 United States GP, that sad farce in which only the six Bridgestone-shod cars took to the starting grid due to safety concerns with Michelin’s tires. Under yet another set of new technical regulations, slick tires were now back, following the FIA’s decision to restrict aerodynamics rather than rubber as a way of keeping cornering speeds under control, Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems (KERS) were optional — promising those who opted to pursue such multi-million dollar development in an era of cost cutting, like McLaren, Ferrari, BMW Sauber and Renault, an extra 80bhp and a

QuoteThe Brawn Grand Prix story is a compound of adventure, opportunism and terrifying risk, all distilled into the 14 months between November 2008, when Ross Brawn and colleagues faced unemployment, to March 2010 when the team principal and owner was decorated by Queen Elizabeth. It is simultaneously an example of mechanical excellence to beat the world, of many human strengths and some human weaknesses. His heritage was to join Enzo Ferrari, John Cooper, Jack Brabbham, Ken Tyrrell, Bruce McLaren (posthumously) and Frank Williams as the only men whose cars have won the F1 title carrying their own name. In a very real sense, Ross Brawn had touched immortality, too.Quote

The Brawn Story — Christopher Hilton

potential gain of 0.6s in lap time — and aerodynamic changes aimed at improving overtaking meant less bodywork “furniture” such as bargeboards, smaller and higher rear wings, and wider and lower fronts which could be adjusted twice a lap to reduce understeer in dirty air. For the frst time in more than a decade, torrential rain caused the abandonment of a Formula One race in Malaysia, producing a red flag on lap 32 and half points awarded at the end of the allotted race time. Renault was investigated for allegedly fixing the results of the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix following charges from Spa 2008Nelson Piquet, Jr., sacked in July, that he had been instructed to crash deliberately in order to give Alonso Safety Car intervention that helped him through to victory. Subsequently, team principal Flavio Briatore was banned indefinitely from the sport.

Of the opening seven races, only China, the third, escaped the Brawn juggernaut, as Sebastian Vettel in his Red Bull led home Mark Webber. The Adrian Newey-designed RB5 had the best lift-drag performance of any car — in a year that would yield the Milton Keynes-based team six wins, four one-twos and 16 podiums — together with fearsomely improved reliability. The in-season testing ban made it hard for the others to catch Brawn, though invariably they did in the season’s second half. By then Button had run amok. Ferrari and McLaren were paying the price for throwing so much technological development into their 2008 title battle and recovered too late to change things. Webber won in Germany, his first Grand Prix success, then Hamilton in Hungary — where Felipe Massa almost lost his eye in qualifying after being knocked unconscious in a freak accident when a spring, detached from the rear suspension of Barrichello’s Brawn, struck Felipe in the head as he reached 175mph on one of the fastest sections of the Hungaroring — and Rubens in Valencia. The British Grand Prix at Silverstone in June marked the start of a spiral that threatened Button’s title aspirations. Another update put Red Bull far ahead there as Vettel led home Webber, for a moment making the season look like a two horse race. Rubens Barrichello began the second half of season form that made him the contender Vettel 09he had always claimed to be. The Brawn cars began to experience a loss of pace whenever track temperatures verged on chilly, unable to get their tires up to optimal racing temperatures, allowing Red Bull were able to seize the advantage. As the Formula One calendar returned to one of its oldest venues, Spa-Francorchamps, the only previous victor on the grid was Kimi Räikkönen, qualifying in sixth. Raikkonen gave Ferrari the win after fending off . . . Gianrcarlo Fisichella of all people, who started from a surprising pole in his Mercedes-powered Force India, with only Raikkonen’s KERS preventing Fisichella from staging a huge upset win. Whereas in the opening seven races Button had scored 61 of the 95 points that would secure him the crown, in the ensuing seven Button scored only 23. And instead of coming in tens they came as a dribble: three, four, two, two, eight, four. But that was enough, just enough.

Button captured the crown in Brazil, the penultimate race, avoiding the early incidents to gain five places on the 1st lap — after qualifying a lowly 14th — before producing some of the best overtaking moves seen all year to finish 5th. The Englishman called Interlagos “the greatest race of my life.” As if to rub in the season-long strength both teams had enjoyed, though, Red Bull scored another Vettel-led one-two in the finale in Abu Dhabi — his fourth victory of the season and fifth of his career — a twilight race under lights at the impressive new Yas Marina circuit, with only Button able to challenge when Hamilton’s McLaren retired with brake problems. In fact, had the season started at the third race in China, Vettel would have won the title. Shortly after Abu Dhabi 09Abu Dhabi, Bridgestone announced they were quitting at the end of 2010, and then Toyota duly said they were going too, as of now. Like Honda and BMW, the Japanese constructor blamed the economic climate and argued they had to stop spending so much on Formula One racing. That in theory cleared the way for Peter Sauber and his new partner Qadbak to join the four new teams which were planning to assemble on the Formula One grid for 2010: Lotus, US F1, Manor and Campos Meta. Purists, of course, continued to argue that F1 racing was more about technicians and designers than drivers. With the “big four” teams of McLaren, Williams, Renault (formerly Benetton) and Ferrari having won every World Championship from 1984 until 2008, the soaring costs of Formula One had visibly widened the chasm between works organizations and smaller independents. Between 1990 and 2008, an astounding 28 teams came and went from F1, including numerous well-financed, corporate efforts, few making more than an ephemeral mark. But in 2009, Brawn Grand Prix had proved them all wrong, for one year at least turning the Formula 1 fraternity completely on its head.

Team Lotus — reincarnated as a Malaysian-owned outfit running classic British racing green and yellow livery — made it to the paddock for the opening race of 2010 at Bahrain, won by Fernando Alonso in a magical debut at Ferrari, but not all the other prospective new teams did. (Manor became Virgin F1, Campos Meta became Hispania Racing and Peter Windsor’s US F1 project surprisingly floundered in pre-season with financing difficulties, amid accusations that the team had been crippled by mismanagement). While that is hardly unusual, Formula One staged a stunning youth revolution of historic proportions. Sebastian Vettel, 2nd in ’09, named his Red Bull machine “Lucious Liz” and the girl put out, making the devilish German the youngest F1 World Champion by a wide margin (23 years, 134 days), the 3rd man aged less than 25 to have won the drivers’ title in five seasons. Massa returned after a long recuperation from that scary incident in Hungary. Before the start of the season, 2009 champion Jenson Button joined McLaren. Ross Brawn sold his

QuoteFor such a macho pasttime, Formula One can be quite hysterical, fractious and queeny. As such, it persistently leaves itself wide open to exploitation by a more determined force (such as the Ecclestone/Mosley two-headed monster). Any change to the rules is met with cries and complaints and threats to abandon the sport. Teams run out of cash and have to be bailed out by Bernie’s unsung subventions, or just fold, leaving an ugly gap in the grid. . . . But when the money flows again, everyone buys themselves a motorhome the size of a department store.Quote

Burning Rubber: The Extraordinary Story of Formula One — Charles Jennings

team to Mercedes Benz — returning to F1 as a constructor for the first time since 1955 — and recruited Michael Schumacher for a comeback after three years away from the sport. Robert Kubica switched to McLaren. Making his record-shattering 285th GP start, Rubens Barrichello moved to AT&T Williams, running Cosworth power. Vitaly Petrov with $15 million in sponsorship support became the first Russian F1 driver at Renault, while Karun Chandhok became the second Indian driver to start in F1, taking a seat with the Force India F1 Team. Bruno Senna, nephew of Ayrton, joined the circus with HRT. And the always popular Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal was restored to the Formula One calendar after a one-year absence.

The FIA of course tinkered officiously once again with rule changes. After 17 years refueling was banned, drivers were reduced to 11 sets of tires over the course of a race weekend (three sets for practice only), narrower front tires mandated, wheel covers and rim heaters banned, and KERS abolished (for a time). F-Ducts, also termed a “blown rear wing” — an ingenious system for funneling air under the rear wing in order to reduce downforce (known as “stalling” the wing) and increase speed — were introduced by McLaren, representing a classic case of race engineers finding ways around the FIA technical regulations to gain an advantage. F-ducts resulted in ugly car designs featuring high spines running all the way from the air intake to the rear wing. They were, of course, outlawed at the end of the year. The refueling ban for 2010 led to the renewed  spectacle of furiously fast pit stops — 3-4 second tire changes performed by choreographed crews of 15 or more mechanics — and racing in which lap times steadily declined as fuel loads were burned off, making tire management again the top strategic challenge Silverstone 2010in Formula One. FIA had planned to introduce a budget cap, in order to safeguard the sport during the global economic downturn, but over the F1 teams’ objections (and yet another break-away threat) that plan was scrapped and a new Concorde Agreement signed through 2012. And a new, radically different scoring system was inaugurated, now rewarding the top ten classified finishers on a 25-18-15-12-10-8-6-4-2-1 basis.

Schumacher had started his career in 1991 when many of the current competitors were mere babes in arms. Now he became everyone’s target. Every single driver, especially Lewis Hamilton, raved about the thrill of racing Michael as only Alonso had ever taken on, and beaten, the legend. But 41 is old for today’s F1 and Scumi was consistently out-qualified and beaten even by teammate Nico Rossberg, son of the 1982 World Champion (but of German nationality). There were flashes, no more than that, of Schumacher’s former brilliance, but mostly a rather messy, apex-missing, over-the-limit new style of driving that was jarring when compared to Michael’s aggressive overtaking and blockingIstanbul 2010 tactics, leading to numerous on-track contretemps. Schumacher chalked it up to car development, yet many wondered why he had even bothered to return, ending the season with a miserable three 4ths, two 6ths and no podiums — a dismal ninth in the standings and a full 70 points behind Rossberg.

In stark contrast to 2009, no single driver emerged as dominant in the early stages of the 2010 seasonFernando Alonso won the opening race after Vettel’s engine misfired. Button claimed victory in Australia for the second year in succession, while Vettel won in Malaysia, setting up a unique situation that would last for the rest of the season whereby no driver would win a race while leading the World Championship. Button became the first driver to prevail in more than one race with victory in China, but Webber would be the first to take back-to-back victories with wins in Spain and Monaco. Webber was leading the Turkish Grand Prix when Vettel attempted a controversial pass on lap 40 that ended with both Red Bulls colliding; Vettel retired but Webber recovered to finish third behind eventual race winner Hamilton and Button. Hamilton would then match Webber’s feat of back-to-back victories by claiming first place in Canada.

This led to much mid-season gossip to the effect that Seb Vettel’s youth was coupled with driving immaturity which would imperil his chance to take the F1 title — that he was a mistake-prone, not ready for prime time under-achiever. That was somewhat unfair, as Vettel started the season on the font row for five consecutive races, suffered from mechanical failures and managed to drive his RB6, almost without brakes, to a masterful 3rd place at Catalunya

QuoteWhatever turned Formula One 2010 into the thriller it was ought to be bottled, as the combination of top drivers with the top three teams and an ebbing and flowing of forms and fortune made this the most enthralling season in living memory, with plots and subplots at every turn as the months went by. Sebestian Vettel all but collapsed after winning the title in Abu Dhabi. He had held his nerve and won the sport’s biggest prize, but his victory required more than a peerless drive; it needed his two arch rivals — including a teammate — to mess up, which they did.Quote

Grand Prix 2011: The Official ITV Sport Guide — Bruce Jones

in round five. But in any event the German grew into the role of championship-caliber racer in the season’s second-half, scoring six podiums in the last nine races. (That includes a controversial 2nd place behind the win by teammate Mark Webber at the 2010 British Grand Prix, where Webber’s newly designed wing was switched with one of Vettel’s old one’s, prompting the Australian to sarcastically remark that his victory was “not bad for a number two driver.”) Vettel’s drivers’ championship victory came after a blown engine at the penultimate Korean GP and a dramatic season closer in Abu Dhabi — a race that served as Vettel’s 3rd win out of the last four races of 2010 — in which three other drivers could also have captured the crown: Webber, Ferrari’s Alonso and McLaren’s Hamilton.  To secure his third championship, Fernando needed to finish either first or second in Abu Dhabi, or to have the Red Bull drivers run into trouble. In the week leading up to the finale, Red Bull Racing repeated its intentions not to employ team orders, a decision widely criticized because allowing Webber to finish ahead of Vettel in the penultimate race in Brazil would have meant heAbu Dhabi 2010 trailed Alonso by just one point ahead of the Abu Dhabi GP. However, the Australian struggled for pace across the weekend, qualifying behind Alonso and unable to find a way past the Ferrari driver during most of the race. Like Webber, Alonso had opted for an early pit stop in his tire strategy, emerging behind Russian rookie Petrov in 6th, unable to overtake the Renault to challenge for the lead and thus handing the title to Vettel by four points. Incredibly, Abu Dhabi was the first time Vettel had led the 2010 World Championship all year — producing a playful, well-mannered podium filled with three World Champions, only the third instance since Phoenix in 1991, and an insane Red Bull garage celebration.

Seb Vettel did not just became the youngest driver in history to win the F1 World Drivers’ Championship in the gathering darkness of the Yas Marina Circuit that November evening. He also scored his first back-to-back race win; became the second German to take the title; the first man since James Hunt (1976) to win the title on the day he took the points lead for the fist time; and only the second driver since 1950 (Kimi the other, in ’07) to jump from third to first on the day he became champion. Add Vettel being the youngest Formula One driver to score a point, to lead a race, to take a podium and to win a race and you have a very special driver at a very special time, provocatively wagging his “No. 1″ finger as a sign of confidence, not bravado.

As if to prove a point, the 2011 Formula One season broke a string of four straight years with closely fought title battles. It was beyond doubt the season of Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull. Quick out of the box, the Red Bull RB7 proved unstoppable in the hands of the young German sensation, who utterly dominated qualifying (15 poles, besting Nigel Mansell’s 1992 record) — only starting off the front row once, in Germany — races (11 wins, only one time not finishing on the podium) and laps (leading an all-time best 739) to become the youngest two-time Champion in F1 history. Despite Vettel’s victory last year, his driving had been rather erratic at times and he made mistakes. In 2011, however, it was apparent from the beginning that he had improved and was much calmer, far more mature. He was very controlled and just seemed always to get on with it, even when the races were difficult. Whatever doubts remained were extinguished as Vettel mastered yet another set of new technical rules — this time introducing a moveable DRS (Drag Reduction System) rear wing, together with mandatory KERS and rapidly degrading Pirelli tires — to capture the laurels with an altogether brilliant performance. He was so dominant at times this season it made you want to cry, because no matter how hard anyone tried, they just couldn’t catch him.

QuoteVettel is a modern Fangio, really, in Formula One. I can’t see, other than his natural ability, how he is that good, how he can be that good.Quote

— Stirling Moss (2012) —

Of course there were controversy and politics as well. Lewis Hamilton graduated into the role of F1 bad boy, colliding five times with Ferrari’s Felipe Massa and earning an almost equal number of race penalties, as his personal life collapsed in astonishing fashion. The new DRS technology made overtaking altogether too easy, compounded at some circuits (Canada, Europe, Italy, India and Abu Dhabi) with dual activation zones — leaving the sense that in trying to spice up the show, the sport veered too far towards gimmicks, obscuring some of its true essence. The FIA tried to ban “off throttle blown diffusers,” perhaps the ultimate in esoteric F1 engineering, producing a surreal British Grand Prix in which different teams ran under different technical rules. The Bahrain GP was cancelled after the Arab Spring uprising. Malaysian Team Lotus and French Lotus Renault battled before the UK High Court for right to the Lotus brand, leading to the spectacle of two different teams — neither with any ties to Colin Chapman’s original — running under the Lotus moniker. And the Scuderia Ferrari were desultory after another season just slightly off the pace, as Fernando Alonso drove to a Button—Parc Ferme, Canada 2011disappointing 4th place finish, pressuring Maranello to fix things, or else.

Remarkably, Red Bull’s straight line speed was poor throughout 2011, so Vettel was vunerable there. Partially as a result, the races themselves were extraordinary. DRS and tire degradation created immense unpredictability and excitement, with race strategies varied and often changed mid-race. Yet Vettel somehow always managed to find an extra 0.5s in Q3 to catapult onto pole and, like Jim Clark 45 years earlier, amazingly drove away from the field off the starting line, putting in both staggering opening laps coupled with balls-out, brave overtaking maneuvers like his outside pass at Monza’s Curva Grande against Alonso and his impressive move on Rosberg at Spa, overtaking the Mercedes around the outside of Blanchimont. At Monaco, the shortest circuit on the calendar, he led by 2 1/2s at the end of the first lap. If one thought it was only the car, though, Vettel convincingly beat his teammate Mark Webber in nearly every session, with the Australian managing only a single victory at the season-ending GP in Brazil. Spectacular drives by McLaren’s Jenson Button — recovering from 21st and last in the field, after having pitted six times, to pass Vettel on the final lap and take a rain-soaked, long-delayed Canadian GP — as well as Hamilton himself — mastering a tricky Shanghai circuit to pass Vettel with superior tire management and capture the win — were epic, albeit brief, counterpoints to Vettel’s supremacy. In Spain, Vettel had to fend off a charging Hamilton towards the end to take victory, by just 0.6s after some hard defending against the McLaren. Add to that a record number passes (623 in the first nine races alone, more than the 547 from 19 races in 2010 and 244 from 17 races in 2009) and the F1 circus was faced with a year in which any position was vulnerable, except perhaps for P1. Overlooked by many was a tremendously competitive mid-field, in which Renault started strong, Force India become competitive (finishing 6th in the Constructors Championship) and the “other” Team Lotus managed to move decisively ahead of its new rivals at the rear of the F1 grid. But that was understandable in light of Vettel’s total mastery of the longest, and in some ways most interesting, Formula One season ever.

Then there was 2012. The season started with name changes: Team Lotus became Caterham; Renault was renamed Lotus; and Virgin Racing was rechristened Marussia. Along with the typical driver reshufflings. Vitaly Petrov and Bruno Senna were replaced at the new Lotus F1 team by 2007 World Champion Kimi Räikkönen — returning to the sport after two seasons competing in rally cars — and reigning GP2 titleist Romain Grosjean, who also made it back to the show after a two-year absence. Petrov later squeezed out venerable Jarno Trulli at Caterham, making the opening race of 2012 the first since the 1973 German Grand Prix to take place without an Italian F1 driver competing. The Formula One technical regulations were Jerez 2012further amended to enhance restrictions against blown diffusers, adding tighter constraints on the position of the exhaust tailpipe, exiting the bodywork much higher up than in 2011 and thus no longer in the vicinity of the rear diffuser. Mid-season, ahead of the Hungarian Grand Prix, the rules were rewritten yet again to require teams to submit an engine map used during the first four races of the season, which became known as the “reference map” — any subsequent changes to the engine’s mapping software would require the approval of the FIA — and banning the use of reactive ride-height. The system, first proposed by Lotus in 2010, used hydraulic cylinders located in the brake calipers and suspension push-rods to make minute adjustments to the ride height of the car, thereby keeping ride height at an optimal level throughout the race and providing stability during braking. The new regulations also included reprofiling of the car’s nose. The pre-2012 rules had permitted the nose to be as high as 62.5 cm (24.6 in) above ground, but revisions to the code intended to protect the drivers’ safety tub from being “speared” lowered the maximum allowable height to 55 cm (22 in) ahead of the front bulkhead.

This resulted in most the season’s cars — McLaren being a prominent exception — being launched with horrendously ugly “platypus” nose designs, as teams reworked the front chassis with a visible step-change in height along the nose in order to maintain air flow across the front wing and under the car. Fernando Alonso called the new stepped-nose Ferrari F2012 “very strange,” but loyally urged that the “all Ferraris are beautiful cars.” Ugly or not, the Ferrari came out of the box as a beast, with performance and reliability problems plaguing Maranello from the first pre-season winter testing sessions. In some ways, that was the story of the 2012 season: Alonso wrestling with an uncooperative chassis to wring out unexpected results in qualifying and absolutely brilliant race performances. That the Spaniard hailed as his “best season ever” one in which he eventually lost the World Championship shows how much of a struggle it was to remain competitive. With six World Champions in the 2012 field, whoever won the F1 title would deserve it. That view was underscored after the first seven GPs were refreshingly won by a record seven different drivers.

QuoteYou had to feel for Fernando Alonso; he gave his all like a gladiator, just one with a smaller sword than his opponent. Alonso was on a higher level this year than at any other time in his career. But he lost the championship because of two non-finishes at Spa and at Suzuka, where he tangled with a Lotus driver. One of these was not his fault, the other he risked a lot and lost out. Such are the fine margins.Quote

 — James Allen On F1 —

The longest campaign in motorsport history fell into a series of neat chapters. For a long time, a driver in an inferior car performing at a level of consistency rarely achieved looked poised to pull off one of the most remarkable championships in history. The changes to the exhaust regulations hit Red Bull harder than anyone else, and it was not until Bahrain that Vettel really got into his stride, though he had taken a hard-won second place Jerez 2012between the McLarens of Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton in Australia. Yet in the end, one of the greatest brains sport has ever seen got on top of the challenges presented by the pre-season rule changes and devilishly confusing Pirelli tires. McLaren was the fastest car at the start and end of the season and in the middle too. It was eclipsed by Adrian Newey’s Red Bull RB8 in early summer and in October, when things really mattered. Nonetheless, the gap was tiny — the top 10 cars frequently qualified all within 1.5s of the pole sitter — and only early season pit-stop blunders and reliability failings in the autumn, which cost Hamilton more than 100 points, undermined McLaren’s shot at the title, despite a fabulous U.S. Grand Prix in Austin where the Brit hounded Vettel into a P1 error to take the lead with just a handful of laps remaining and capture victory, sending the drivers’ championship to the finale at Interlagos once again. That was not enough to outweigh Vettel’s four consecutive wins in Singapore, Japan, Korea and India, a superior mid-season streak (in which the German led every lap for three straight races) that belied an otherwise riveting display of unpredictable 2012 race results. These included remarkable 1st GP wins by Nico Rosberg for Mercedes in China — the legendary Mercedes Silver Arrows returning to the winner’s circle for the first time as a constructor since 1954 — and youthful Venezuelan Pastor Maldonado for Williams in Spain.

Vettel becoming, at just 25, Formula One’s youngest triple champion was an easy prediction to make following 2011, when the German ran away with his 2nd title and the Red Bull team was simply unbeatable. It looked considerably less likely as the F1 circus headed off for its summer break the next August when, after 13 rounds of the longest-ever 20-race season, Vettel still had only one victory to his credit and was a daunting 42 points off the lead. Some of the highlights of this most capriciously unpredictable year included a chaotic and confusing rain-affected Malaysian Grand Prix in March, where it was left to Alonso and Sergio Perez to fight it out for honors at Kuala Lumpur. Alonso kept his head while Perez ate into his Jerez 2012lead, but the Mexican slid wide and lost enough time for Alonso to scrape home to win his first race of the season, a stunning result considering how far off the pace Ferrari had been in testing and in the Australian opener. Maldonado’s finely judged victory at Catalunya was the first for Williams GP since 2004, and a day many believed might never come. That it arrived on the weekend of Frank Williams’ 70th birthday was almost divine intervention — in reality it was down to the excellence of Maldonado on that particular weekend, staving off Fernando Alonso who was desperate to win his home event. In June at Valencia, the emotion exhibited by Alonso on the podium was uncharacteristic, the Spaniard reduced to tears by the reaction of the patriotic crowd to his incredible win from 11th on the grid. That it was aided by retirements of Vettel and Hamilton mattered not. (There was misery for Sebastian Vettel, who retired from P1 with a 19s lead, and Lewis Hamilton after the McLaren driver crashed out after a collision with Maldonado with only two laps to go.) A critical tweak to the Red Bull’s use of exhaust gases to enhance the rear aerodynamics was introduced in Japan. In tandem with a clever — and of course, now-banned — “double DRS” overtaking aid that made its debut at the previous race in Singapore, it put the car on another level from the rest and Vettel romped to four sraight victories.

In Abu Dhabi, Hamilton should have won the race, but McLaren’s reliability woes put paid to his hopes. On the podium, the intrepid David Coulthard stepped forward to interview the winners — the traditional moderated post-race press conferences having given way for entertainment purposes to banal and almost surreal podium “Q&A” by past F1 stars. Cue the the now infamous YouTube hit “people have been giving me sh*t” comment by Kimi, who finished 3rd by 4s from Fernando. Accidents and shunts added to the tension and excitement of the 2012 season, even Michael Schumacher not immune to the dangers of a wet track at Hockenheim, and eventual World Champion Sebastian Vettel also fell victim in Brazil. By far the most horrifying, however, was Romain Grosjean’s over-zealous move entering La Source at the start of the Belgian Grand Prix; the resulting carnage destroyed four cars and was the beginning of the end for Alonso’s title quest. Alonso was lucky to walk away alive when the airborne Lotus missed his helmet by mere inches after launching off the Ferrari’s rear tires. As if calling a backmarker an “idiot” on his team radio wasn’t enough, Sebastian Vettel stirred up more controversy by overtaking Jenson Button off the road for 2nd place at Hockenheim and earning a post-race time penalty that dropped him to 5th. Branding Lewis Hamilton “stupid” for un-lapping himself from the Red Bull earlier in the race hardly went down well in the McLaren camp, too.

QuoteIf we were cruel, we would say McLaren blew this championship. They had everything in their favour, from drivers to car to designers to budget to everything. They blew it.Quote

 — BBC Chief F1 Analyst Eddie Jordan —

Aside from Michael Schumacher’s phantom pole position at the Monaco Grand Prix, where he was dropped back on the grid due to a lingering stewards’ penalty from the prior race, Mercedes failed to top any significant timesheets for the rest of the season. Schumacher himself achieved an ironic high-Abu Dhabi 2012 pitspoint in Valencia when he made the only podium appearance of his comeback in 3rd place; despite the all-too-obvious failure of the seven time World Champion to recapture his former glories, Schumi remains one of the greatest drivers of all time. And then to Brazil. In what turned out to be one of the most dramatic final-day races of all-time on a slippery surface, Sebastian Vettel completed the job despite a first-lap collision with Bruno Senna. But as others, including Lewis Hamilton, fell by the wayside, Vettel managed to drag his car into 6th place and stay three points ahead of 2nd-place Alonso. Inevitably, the talk must turn to Vettel; but what is there left to say? The facts speak for themselves — youngest pole sitter, youngest race winner, youngest World Champion, youngest double Champion, youngest triple Champion…the list is endless. Vettel’s statistics vaulted him into the realm of legends, bettering both Clark and Lauda with 26 career wins and moving easily into 3rd place all-time with 36 pole positions. The fact the Ferrari driver ultimately lost out by only three points, and actually outscored Vettel in the final three races by 10 points, underlines not only what an utterly fantastic season Alonso had but also how unlucky he was not to win it, even in what was at best the 3rd fastest car. The Brazilian Grand Prix was a race of incredible ebb and flow, twist and turn, and Vettel’s race had more of these than most. Nevertheless, by the end he was just close enough to secure his third world title. Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull did it yet again, scoring their third consecutive drivers’ and constructors’ World Championships, but it was far from a foregone conclusion.

And so, as they have for seven decades, the young men and old masters of Formula One move forward into a new season in which every driver and car are still competitive for the championship before the first GP — reaching for laurels, Mumm and money, but mostly for the almost-mythical reverence attached to the title of world’s best driver. The glamour, history, passion and breathtaking performance of F1, that 60-year, globe-circling odyssey to determine the true World Champion of motorsports, will be renewed once again. New legends will be made, egos bruised and engineers challenged. But that has always been the saga of Formula One.

 


 

 

 

 

 

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